The Debate

The Human Tragedy of North Korea

A focus on nukes and rockets overlooks an ongoing human tragedy.

The Human Tragedy of North Korea
Credit: North Korea fence via

North Korea is once again in the news. After its recent launch of a long-range missile, ostensibly for the purpose of satellite delivery, fears about the country’s nuclear ambitions are at a high. Government officials around the world are discussing strategies for containing the potential nuclear threat.

Unfortunately, and quite tragically, this seems to be all anyone talks about when they talk about North Korea – although occasionally headlines are created when the regime imprisons foreigners, especially if they are Americans. But North Korea, qua grotesque human tragedy, seems to barely register on our collective radar.

An eye-opening U.N. Human Rights Council report released in 2014 did garner some media attention, but the discussion was fleeting.

The report detailed the regime’s systematic abuse of its population as well as its economic mismanagement of food production, leading to widespread food shortages, the most acute of which occurred in the 90s and caused the deaths of millions of people.

The report also describes how any explicit or implicit criticism of the regime can land North Koreans in a forced labor camp. The regime demands strict, unwavering loyalty, often in very strange ways. For example, each household is required to place three portraits – one of Kim Il-sung, one of Kim Jong-il, and one of the two of them together – up on its walls. Frequent bowing to these portraits is also required. Anything but strict reverence for these images is harshly punished. The U.N. report details a case where a man was sent to prison camp for life for unintentionally soiling the image of the Supreme Leader by using a newspaper containing the image to mop up some spilt milk. Fortunately, the rest of his family was spared.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Other families are not so fortunate. Many “political crimes” can land not just you, but your entire family, in prison camp for life. Children born in such camps are forced to remain there for their whole lives. Except for those in Camp 15, the inmates are considered “ideologically irredeemable” and have no hope of securing release.

How bad are the prison camps themselves? Describing the conditions as a “living hell” probably doesn’t do them justice. There is, explicitly, no legal process to constrain how the guards are to treat the inmates – this gives the guards total impunity and discretion with regards to the treatment of prisoners. There is widespread rape, coupled with forced abortions. There is widespread intentional starvation. If a prisoner does not fulfill her work quota, no matter how sick or weak she may be, she is beaten, tortured, or mutilated. There is also widespread use of public executions to make examples out of inmates who “disobey.”

To add to the travesty, most of North Korea’s residents have no idea what the outside world is like. This is because the regime maintains strict control over what information is disseminated to the populace. All of the media is state run, and it is a crime to possess any CDs, DVDs, etc., containing foreign films or other media. This is one of the principal methods by which the regime maintains its grip over the population.

Human life in North Korea is a nightmare, and the world ought to do something about it. Many do not consider direct confrontation with the regime to be an option. There might be some wisdom in this – the country has a massive (albeit vastly outdated) standing army, and it possibly has nuclear weapons.

Many observers think that the best way forward is for the international community to step up pressure on China. China continues to support the regime in many ways, the most important of which is the enforcement of the land border it shares with North Korea. China refuses to treat escaping North Koreans as refugees and often sends them back (to their deaths). But if anybody is a refugee, surely it is the North Korean fleeing starvation, torture, and complete domination by the state. Moreover, if China does not want to accommodate all of these refugees, the rest of the world ought to be willing to step up to admit some of them, after they are processed through China.

The reasons behind China’s continuing to prop up the regime are very puzzling – the country has no ideological or economic reasons to do so. On the first count, China has moved well past the old ideology of state monopoly over all means of production. Since Mao’s death, China has welcomed foreign investment, trade, and private sector companies, and is now the largest exporter (by far) on earth.

Second, China’s trade with North Korea is miniscule when compared to its total trade. Estimates for the entire GDP of North Korea range from about $15 billion (per capita: ~$600) to $40 billion. Compare that with South Korea’s GDP of $1.4 trillion (per capita: ~$28,000) – neighborhoods in Seoul have greater total GDP than the whole of North Korea. And while China’s trade with North Korea is around $5.6 billion, its trade with South Korea dwarfs this figure, reaching $215 billion in 2012. Thus, even from a purely self-interested perspective of boosting trade, China would do better if North Korea were to liberalize its economy (which might only be possible after regime change) in the manner of its southern neighbor.

Perhaps our reluctance to do anything about North Korea’s depravity towards its own people owes to the observation that getting rid of dictators has not worked so well in the recent past. Be that as it may, there are good reasons to think that this case is different – just look at South Korea! While the south largely shares its cultural and historical background with the north, it has transformed itself into a vibrant, flourishing democracy with a very high standard of living.

It is high time, then, for the world to do something about the ongoing plight of the utterly subjugated population of North Korea. Because it’s the right thing to do. Because it’s 2016.

Hrishikesh Joshi is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University, focusing on ethics and political philosophy.